Mobile Learning

What Does Mobile Learning Mean?

Mobile Learners & Tools

A good place to start in any discussion of a topic is to consider your definitions. As I’ve been working on this post, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s more important to center the discussion on mobile learners than it is mobile tools. In other words, I think mobile learning is defined more by the mobility of the learners and the context of learning than it is about the tools those learners are using (see “Mobile Learning”). According to The World Is Open, “With mobile devices, the educational event or activity follows the learner, instead of the learner having to arrive at a designated place in which to acquire it. Access, access, and more access is demanded everywhere one travels” (Bonk, 2010, p. 293). Mobile learners are able to access academic material or complete their coursework as they move through their day: as they wait in line at the DMV, as they sit on a park bench on their lunch break from work, or as they ride on the metro on their way home. Mobile students move across contexts as they study and learn.

So what tools are “mobile” tools? Because I think that mobile learning can be conceptualized as being more about the mobility of the learner than the tool, I prefer not to include laptops as a “mobile” tool. Laptops are “transportable computers…one moves it from place to place, working at each of those places. But, one doesn’t use a laptop computer while one is moving about” (Norris & Solloway, 2013). In a 2015 Educause study, around 40% of students say they wished their instructors used smartphones or tablets more frequently (Dahlstrom, Brooks, Grajek, S. & Reeves, 2015).  Similarly, the number of students who do access academic resources on mobile devices is quickly rising: in 2013, 67% of students’ tablets and smartphones were used for educational purposes, which is nearly double from the previous year (Chen & deNoyelles, 2013). Clearly, post-secondary students are using their mobile devices (not just transportable laptops) to access academic content, which makes a discussion of mobile learning timely and relevant to higher education.

Context is Critical

According to a blog post exploring mobile learning’s impact on instructional design, “mobile learning assumes that modern learners are continuously in motion, and allows students to learn the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. This immediacy could increase the effectiveness of authentic and situated learning tasks by giving students the ability to approach a topic in real time, as they go about their daily routine” (Remington, 2015). In other words, mobile learning has the potential to adapt to the context of learning.


Venn diagram. Social aspect, digital aspect, and learner aspect all intersect in mobile learning, which is at the center.
Source: Koole’s FRAME Model. (“Mobile Learning,” 2015).

I particularly like this diagram of mobile learning, which explains mobile learning as the intersection of the social aspect, device aspect, and learner aspect. In the next section, I will first consider the intersection of Learner and Device, and then consider the intersection of the Social aspect and the Learner.

Designing for Mobility

If you are an instructor designing a course, you probably recognize that your mobile students will access your course content in a variety of contexts. According to Remington (2015), “Whether or not you formally design curriculum for mobile learning, it will exist. Learners will find ways to consume content and learn in different environments. So embrace that concept!” So how can we embrace the concept of mobile learners?

Practically Speaking

Device Usability

First, I think it’s important to consider a few practical elements of design that can make mobile learning more or less effective. How do learners interact with their mobile devices? (This is the “device usability” section of the diagram above). Obviously, viewing content on a mobile device is different than viewing it on a laptop or desktop. The way we use these devices, the contexts in which we use these devices, and the physical ways we interact with these devices are quite different (Buff, 2013). According to an article by ICS Learning Group, “While audience and content vary, one constant that is largely accepted; an mLearning module that tries to be like an eLearning module does not make for a great learning experience” (Gipple and Lord). If you’ve ever tried to scroll sideways on a smartphone or accidentally hit “cancel” instead of “submit” because the buttons were too close on a small screen, you know the frustration of trying to interact with a device that isn’t designed for mobility.

In order to take into account the needs of your mobile learners, you may want to think about things like screen size and file download limits. Unlike students working entirely on laptops, students who use smartphones for schoolwork are perhaps using up their (limited) phone’s data plan (Buff, 2013). Also consider your use of flash or other things that may not work across all devices. Remember that scrolling or typing essays can be difficult in a mobile context. An Inside Higher Ed article suggests that when designs for mobile learning could be “chunked, and be less about typing and text.  Video capture could replace typing.  Short statements could replace long paragraphs” (Kim, 2013). When in doubt, try out Google’s URL Tester to see if a course will work for the mobile learner (Avey, 2016).

The Benefit of Apps

When we use mobile devices to learn, we can access a variety of apps that can broaden learning, fill in knowledge gaps, and enhance academic productivity (West, 2013). For example, teachers could compile a list of reference apps and encourage students to use those apps. In an Educause study by Chen and deNoyelles (2013), these were some of the most common apps that mobile learners said they used on a regular basis:

An Inside Higher Ed blog post explains that:

We universally dislike the browser based learning management system (LMS), and universally love our phones.  We love apps.We love apps because they are purpose built, simple, lightweight, cheap, and fast. Imagine a mobile first online learning platform that strips away all the unwanted features of the LMS.  No more complicated gradebook.  No more list of features that we never use.  Only a method to collaborate, share materials, complete and collect assignments, engage in formative assessment, and build a community in the class (Kim, 2016).

The power of mobile learning is maximized when students are encouraged to take advantage of the unique features of mobile devices.

Pedagogically Speaking


Mobile learning has a unique potential to enhance student learning, and can be particularly powerful when courses for mobile learners are designed to play to the strengths of mobile devices. For example, mobile learning can be a uniquely connective and social process. (This speaks to the intersection of “social aspect” and “learner aspect” in the diagram above). Bonk (201o) describes that more people and resources are “fully loaded in the teaching and learning loop” (p. 353). Mobile devices offer instant opportunities for connection; more connection with resources, but also more connection with other like-minded learners. As Remington (2015) describes, “Social media has created a culture where people have near-instantaneous contact with any other person, anywhere in the world. By focusing on Mobile Learning, instructional designers can take advantage of this culture to further improve learning opportunities” (Remington, 2015). With mobile tools, “interacting with a learning community could become organic to activities of daily living” (Kim, 2016). Essentially, mobile learning creates new opportunities for connectivity with other learners as we move throughout our day and access learning spaces in a variety of contexts.

Learner-Centered and User-Generated Content

Some argue that mobile learning is more learner-centered. Access–instant, flexible, and varied–characterizes mobile learning. As The World Is Open describes, “The emergence of mobile and wireless technologies for learning— which place educational opportunities literally in the learner’s hands and allow him to schedule learning when he wants it—has paralleled the growing acceptance of a more learner-centered educational philosophy” (Bonk, 2010, p. 295). “mLearning” has become a common abbreviation for mobile learning. As you may imagine, the “m” usually stands for “mobile.” Sergio (2012) argues that the “m” could “just as easily” represent “me” (Sergio, 2012). Mobile learning has the potential to be centered on the needs of the learner.

Designing for mobile learners also means we encourage movement across contexts and user-generated content. Jisc explains that a “holistic” approach to mobile learning “is to engage the learner in creating user-generated content and engaging through audio, video and other features of mobile devices in the learning experience” (“Mobile Learning”). An Educause article also explains that mobile learning offers an opportunity to create user generated content, explaining that, “Devices such as smartphones, tablets, and e-book readers connect users to the world instantly, heightening access to information and enabling interactivity with others. Applications that run on these devices let users not only consume but also discover and produce content” (Chen & deNoyelles, 2013).

Mobile learning, then, represents this intersection of the Learner Aspect, Device Aspect, and Social Aspect. Considering these three elements of mobile learning will help us maximize the potential of mobile devices to positively influence higher education.


Avey, S. (2016, January 6). Mobile-ready education: Making education more accessible. [Web log comment]. Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Bonk, C. (2010). The world is open: How web technology is revolutionizing education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Buff, T. (2013, October 8). Top 5 design considerations for creating mobile learning. [Web log comment]. eLearning Industry. Retrieved from

Chen, B. & deNoyelles, A. (2013, October 7). Exploring students’ mobile learning practices in higher education. Educause Review. Retrieved from

Dahlstrom, E., Brooks, C., Grajek, S. & Reeves, J. (2015, August 17). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2015. Educause. Retrieved from

Gipple, J. & Lord, E. Understanding mobile learning and best practices. ICS Learning Group. Retrieved from

Kim, J. (2016, May 11). 3 theories why we are intrigued by mobile learning. [Web log comment]. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Mobile learning. Jisc. (2015, November 12). [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Norris, C. & Solloway, E. (2013, June 5). Is a laptop a mobile computer? And why is that even an important question? [Web log comment]. The Journal. Retrieved from

Sergio, F. (2012, May 31). 10 ways that mobile learning will revolutionize education. [Web log comment]. Fast Company. Retrieved from

Remington, K. (2015, April 23). Mobile learning’s impact on instructional design. [Web log comment]. Designed to Learn. Retrieved from

West, D. M. (2013, September). Mobile learning: Transforming education, engaging students, and improving outcomes. Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. Retrieved from

Wong, W. (2012, June 1). How mobile devices are changing higher education. Community College Daily. Retrieved from




3 thoughts on “Mobile Learning

  1. Skip Via says:

    The concept of user-centered learning has always interested me.If you accept–as I do–that the most effective learning occurs when there is a relationship between the learning and the mentor, then it would seem to me that all learning would be user-centered. This class is an example.I don’t think I “teach” you anything. You develop an idea, do some research, pose some questions, and participate in discussions that (I hope) guide you along your path as much as you guide me along mine. The purpose isn’t to acquire a fixed body of knowledge. The purpose is to relate what we are all discussing to your own needs and situation, In the course of that, you’ll learn many things–for example, how to manage a blog, how to catalog and share research with Diigo, etc.–but you’ll learn it because it means something to you.

    So how did we get away from user-centered learning? (I say “get away” because it was certainly in full force in Plato’s time.) Not all that long ago, information was confined to specific locations, access to which was controlled by a select group of (usually) men. Students had to come to where the information was housed, and this information was disseminated by lecture from the keepers of the flame. I’m being intentionally dramatic and oversimplifying this to a considerable degree, but we’ve essentially developed the notion that the lecture and test model is the way teaching should be. Our own university evaluation system still rewards this type of teaching.

    mLearning should turn all that on its ear. Not only can we allow students to pursue learning based on their needs, we can–as you mentioned–allow learners to create, produce and distribute their own knowledge-based systems. Even in those cases in which a learning environment requires rote learning (chemistry, law…), the context for that learning can be, you mentioned, manipulated and arranged to serve learner needs rather than simply serving the needs of the teacher.

    So why isn’t all learning user centered?

  2. Bob says:

    I think you end at a very important beginning, user generated content. Folks are going to do it with us or without us, that is, generate content. I recall talking with a dear friend, despite being a full-professor at an elite liberal arts college, about what kids were doing and making in middle school and high school. I described the video editing class both my kids had taken and like a proud father showed her a couple they had made. I asked her where that skill set fit in at our elite liberal arts college. She indicated that she could happily evaluate a 20-page paper, but had no basis for grading a video. Accordingly, my kids make videos to satisfy themselves, and to make money, but not to demonstrate intellectual accomplishment.

    I suspect we have made some advances on that and I suspect that folks in this program are better positioned to assign and evaluate online user generated content; however, I do not think we are out of the woods.

    I am intrigued also how in the 19th century we described a person without formal credentialing but well read, thoughtful and articulate, and probably eccentric, as “self-educated.” And in our own time we see young people pulling away from our system of credentials yet obviously productive, articulate even thoughtful, and we lack, or fear to describe and celebrate them as “self-educated.” Mobil learning, and I love your emphasis, is challenging our shabby algebra, schooling = learning.

    Remembering Gregory Bateson in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind and then viciously appropriating him (I replace, hospital, and patient):

    We would assume that whenever the system is organized for [school] purposes and it is announced to the [student] that the actions are for his benefit, then the schizophrenogenic situation is being perpetuated. This kind of deception will provoke the [student] to respond to it as a double bind situation, and his response will be “schizophrenic” in the sense that it will be indirect and the patient will be unable to comment on the fact that he feels that he is being deceived. (230-1)

    Therefore, that is my reply to your concluding question.

  3. Nikki Stein says:

    I really enjoyed reading the Device Usability section and getting your perspective as an instructional designer. I would have never considered the design of the modules for eLearning versus mLearning and that there might not be crossover between the two. In class, my students go between computers, tablets, and iPhones based on the time of day and what is available. I usually think about what can only be done on a mobile device because it’s an app instead of the other way around.

    I love the idea of connecting to other learners and expanding that learning community with mobile tools and the other powers of using social media in the classroom to connect with students around the world, but wonder how that could be used for K-12 students. It seems to me that privacy laws and FERPA are getting stricter (or maybe it’s just my administrator). We still do things as a class that help us connect with other classrooms, like Skyping with a classroom in another country, but I haven’t found a way where students can collaborate and share with other students on a smaller scale.

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